Responsibility to protect Syria: why not?

Responsibility to protect Syria: why not?

Amid the rising death toll in Syria, which has reached as many as 30,000 or more, the UN Security Council remains paralyzed and the discussion on whether this constitutes a responsibility to protect (R2P) case continues. Developed as a result of the international community’s failure to respond to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, R2P, based on traditional just war doctrine, came to include three sets of responsibilities: The responsibility of the state toward its own people not to commit or allow atrocities on its territory; The responsibility of the international community to assist states to fulfill their responsibilities; and if a state fails to protect its own people, the responsibility of the international community to provide protection to civilians.

The high point of R2P came in March 2001 when the Security Council approved the 1973 Resolution, calling for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya, which led to a NATO operation, undoubtedly saving thousands of lives at imminent risk. Yet, criticism immediately followed, based on the impeachment of sovereignty of states, and reached a point of dissention today. The UN Security Council cannot even agree on adopting non-military measures such as targeted sanctions or arms embargo in Syria, where even bigger scale human rights violations and sufferings than Libya are likely to happen.

Part of the reason for unwillingness to think about a new R2P resolution is the different geopolitical setting. No doubt complex internal sectarian divisions, potentially explosive regional implications, lack of unity and less than democratic credentials of opposition groups, Russian commitment to the al-Assad regime, existence of a strong Syrian army making intervention difficult and bloody, as well as lack of political will and appetite in the West to use military force in Syria, have all effected the discussions.

What is more important, however, is the reluctance of some of the Security Council members to allow the repetition of NATO-led operation in Libya, where at one point it moved from protection of civilians to regime change. Both Russia and China do not wish to allow international intervention into what they perceive as a domestic issue. They want Syrian sovereignty to be respected and believe that interventions due to humanitarian issues now inevitably evolve to regime change instead of R2P. Thus they wish to prevent development of an international practice, opening the way for creation of a customary legal framework that may lead to similar interventions for regime change in non-democratic countries.

That is why R2P in Syria has become mission impossible and that’s why Turkey finds itself alone against a despotic and reprehensible regime. It is one thing to argue for the humanitarian protection of civilians, it is another to convince others about the sincerity of your intentions, seriousness of the risk of non-intervention, all non-military options are tried, and all will be better off with military intervention; prerequisites for R2P operation.